By: Tiffany Tam
How do you become a lawyer without a law degree?
Generally, people perceive lawyers to be an exclusive profession that can only be achieved upon the completion of a vigorous law degree. However, there are many ways one can make a career switch to become a lawyer without having to study a 3-year LLB law degree. In fact, many law firms and chambers value the array of transferable skills that comes with a non-law degree, and this is reflected in their recruitment numbers—roughly 50% each from law and non-law background.
Traditionally, people looking to convert to a legal career after studying an undergraduate degree in a non-law discipline are required to take a law conversion course, namely the GDL (Graduate Diploma in Law). The GDL essentially covers the content of an LLB law degree and is condensed into one year. It covers the 7 core modules of law; namely constitutional law, tort law, public law, land law, EU law, equity and trusts, criminal law, and contract law. The GDL is very flexible in that it can be offered both in person or online, and one year full-time or two-year part-time course. This means that students are free to do part-time jobs while studying the course.
In the past, after students completed the GDL, they would go on to take the LPC (for solicitors) or the BPTC (for barristers). However, this route is now replaced by the SQE and BPC.
The SQE (for solicitors)
In 2021, the SQE (Solicitors’ Qualifying Exam) replaced the mandatory GDL and LPC to ensure that all new solicitors are consistently assessed under the same standard.
The SQE is divided into 2 stages, namely SQE1 and SQE2, and is assessed on a pass/fail basis. SQE1 examines legal knowledge and consists of 2 exams—FLK1 and 2. FLK 1 will cover business law and practice, dispute resolution, contract, tort, the legal system of England and Wales, Constitutional and Administrative Law, and EU Law and Legal Services. FLK 2 will cover property practice, wills, and the administration of estates, solicitors accounts, land law, trusts, criminal law, and practice. Meanwhile, SQE2 assesses legal skills, including client interview and attendance note, advocacy, case and matter analysis, legal research, legal writing, and legal drafting. Under the new qualification route, students must hold an undergraduate degree in any discipline, pass SQE1 and SQE2, complete 2 years of qualifying work experience, and meet the SRA’s character and suitability requirements.
Students usually take a conversion course and then a preparatory SQE course. Students can also take conversion courses that incorporate SQE preparation. These new courses include the PGDL (Postgraduate Diploma in Law), MA Law (conversion and SQE1), and SQE Law Essentials, to name a few. The content and timing of these new courses can vary between different universities. Although the GDL is no longer mandatory, people can still choose to take it to build their foundation of legal knowledge.
The BPC (for barristers)
Non-law graduates hoping to become barristers are still required to take a law conversion course, such as the GDL, the PGDL, or MA Law (conversion). However, instead of taking the BPTC (Bar Professional Training Course), graduates will now take the vocational bar course, the Bar Practice Course (BPC). Before starting the vocational component of bar training, graduates need to join one of the four Inns of Court, which are Gray’s Inn, The Inner Temple, Lincoln’s Inn, and Middle Temple. After passing the BPC, this is then followed by a combination of work-based learning component and pupilage.
Apprenticeships are a viable alternative to university that combine paid work and legal training with part-time study for professional qualifications such as the SQE. Apprenticeships are open to UK citizens who are aged 16 or over and not in full-time education.
There are different types of apprenticeships. The intermediate apprenticeship is aimed at school leavers who have not done A levels and usually lasts 15-21 months. A paralegal apprenticeship offers paralegal training in a specific practice area and lasts 24 months, and can lead to a chartered legal executive apprenticeship or a solicitor apprenticeship. A chartered legal executive apprenticeship trains students to become a legal executive, which is a type of lawyer who specializes in a specific area of law. A legal executive performs a similar role as a solicitor. Finally, a solicitor apprenticeship is a 6-year programme that allows students to obtain a law degree and pass the SQE.